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The Alexander Technique for Musicians
Born to Sing
by Ron Murdock
 I can't remember a time when I did not sing. My earliest memories are of singing with mymother while she baked bread or did the ironing. I sang my first solo in our church when Iwas four years old.I did not begin any formal voice training until my voice broke when I was 14 years old. Igrew up in a small village in Nova Scotia and was indeed fortunate to have Vivian Brand,a music educator par excellence, as my first singing teacher. She taught music in theschools in the nearby town. Every child or teenager who came in contact with her couldsing because she firmly believes we are born to sing.When I went to the University, the professor who taught School Music Educationimpressed upon us that all children, unless something is organically wrong, can sing. Shegave us various skills, exercises and ideas, (including "tone matching" games) to use withchildren who were so-called "droners"--meaning they could not sing in tune. (She alsoimpressed upon us that droners were most often children who had not been sung to athome.) These tone matching games developed and reinforced the coordination betweenthe ear and the larynx. Once this is done the child sings in tune. It can be that simple.I applied these skills when I taught school music in Montreal between the years 1962 and1966, to children between age 6 and 13. In this four year span, dealing with hundreds of children, there was not one who, eventually, could not sing. At most, it took about threemonths (one half-hour class lesson per week) of tone matching exercises before all were"in tune" (and usually it took less); in the end they all sang and what fun they had doingso.A grade 4 class (10 year olds) at Maisonneuve School, Montreal recordedMay 1962 (wav file 145K)Why then are so many people reluctant to sing? Why do they feel they can not sing at all?It is a strange situation given the fact that children love to sing and their first attempts atspeech are singing sounds. And it is even stranger, given that with the right help childrencan, and want to, sing. In my experience, people who are embarrassed to sing (or whothink they cannot sing) almost always were told in school that they had an ugly voice,sang too loudly, that they did not know how to sing or were "droners." They wereexcluded from class singing or the choir and still feel hurt about it.
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Children tend to believe what adults tell them and are, therefore, at the mercy of teachersand parents. If they are told they cannot sing, they will believe it. They will not be able tosing--at least not until their beliefs change. It is cruel to tell a child he does not know howto sing, and people suffer for years because of it. If you are someone this has happenedto, then you have been deprived of a right that is as basic and natural as using your hands,skipping, or breathing.This is a very good example of what F.M. Alexander meant when he said the way wethink of a thing influences how we use it. In this case, a child being led to believe hecannot sing influences his ability to sing. On the other hand, the way I was taught to thinkabout children being born to sing enabled me to help them overcome the obstacles thatprevented them from singing.When we come to the training of singers, we see that almost every singing teacher thinksof the voice in a somewhat different way. These various ways of thinking result in just asmany "techniques" or "methods" as there are teachers, each one attempting to produce agood sound. These "methods" are then reflected in the physical use of the singer as heattempts to put them into practice. Some approaches to singing are clear and trouble free,resulting in a generally well-coordinated use of the body. Others could not be moredifficult, resulting in heavy muscular effort, gasping for breath, and unease.Despite such varied approaches to singing, it is clear that the end result most singingteachers are looking for is usually the same. A true story illustrates this point: A fineyoung singer gave a recital at an International Conference of Singing Teachers. At theend of her recital all the singing teachers gave her a standing ovation and most of themsaid: "Of course she uses my method."!The only way to cut through so many different approaches is to understand what thevoice is and how it works. I think the most important first step to good use of the voice isa desire to communicate. In the introduction to their book called, Singing: The PhysicalNature of the Vocal Organ, by Professor Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling,Rodd-Marling says, "Singing is a highly physical happening, a unique form of communication produced by muscle-movements set in motion by a fundamentallyemotive desire to express beauty." Everyone communicates their thoughts and feelingseach time they speak--day in and day out. Rarely does anyone think of vocal techniquewhen they do so. They want to say something and do so. Some find communication aneasier task than others, but we can safely say we know how to do it. Our survival more orless depends on it. However, that singing is a "unique form of communication" should beexamined.What does Rodd-Marling mean by unique? The communication level required by anyonewho wants to sing well needs to be on a very large scale and to be overtly emotional. It isthis exaggerated level of communication of feeling that actually sets in motion andcoordinates the vast, complex muscle structures of the singing instrument. This puts avery great physical demand on a professional singer---as great a demand as that of anytop athlete.
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At this point let us see how Rodd-Marling's definition of singing might change ourapproach to singing or speaking. Her idea rests on wanting to communicate somethingand on the desire to express beauty. Sing a song. Any song you know well. Or take apiece of prose or poetry and read it aloud. Are you aware that as you began to sing orrecite, you lose some sense of communication? Perhaps not, but, if you do, then try thefollowing: Have the desire to communicate the mood or feeling of a song/poem tosomeone else. Keep the desire to communicate the feeling uppermost in your mind. If afriend is working with you, communicate it to her. Otherwise, try looking into your owneyes in a mirror. (Notice that it is your eyes that begin the expression, the feeling. Whenyou smile,the eyes smile first and lead the lips. To begin with, check to see that your eyesare friendly, humorous, warm and welcoming. You can add other emotions later, as youwish.)Play with this idea for a while and repeat it until you are satisfied you have reallycommunicated some feeling. Now, repeat what you sang, and make sure you want thesound you are making to be as beautiful as possible. Has anything changed? Was itdifferent? Was it easier? Did you begin to get the feeling that somehow "the right thingdid itself," as Alexander would say? Did you have a sense that the whole thing wassomehow deeper, more complete, more intense? I think you will find that keeping thethought of wanting to communicate and express something beautifully will help makevital changes in your general coordination and will bring about a different and easier useof your body and improve the quality of the sound you are making.I'm sure Alexander must have had a strong sense of communication and most likely did itautomatically. He was after all, an actor, a performer. Performers want to communicate atthis strong level, and do so. It's what motivates them and should motivate anyoneworking with singers and actors.It is easy to lose sight of this important aspect of vocal work when concentrating soheavily on learning new skills, either as a singer practicing vocal exercises or anAlexander teacher absorbed in refining balance and coordination. The temptation tobecome involved internally with what is going on is very great when so much emphasis isplaced on inhibiting old responses and learning any new skill. Therefore it is importantthat the student maintain a strong connection with the world outside himself. A desire tocommunicate is a good way to establish this connection. As Rodd-Marling says in herdefinition of singing, the vocal and breathing mechanism is set in motion by the desire toexpress oneself and to communicate. Therefore, including communication in vocal workis absolutely essential to the functioning of the instrument as a whole. Otherwise, singingcan become all too difficult and mechanical. During a performance it is impossible tocontrol consciously each of the many parts of the whole singing instrument, all of whichneed to work at the same time in a highly coordinated way. During practice, howeverconscious control wants to be directed at maintaining the poise and direction of the bodyto allow the voice to emerge by itself while working separately on the various parts of thesinging instrument to wake them up and bring them into play so that the whole instrumentis ready to work. Both these aspects make up a good practice or training session and theyneed to be repeated (grooved, in tennis terms) until they work automatically during the
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